Scene Change Music

October 22, 2010

Music Theatre History Note: Way back in the old days, before everything was dragged onto the stage mechanically with winches and computers, even Broadway shows would have stage hands move giant set pieces during scene changes. And they, too, had trouble keeping that from getting boring for the audience. So they would often write into the shows something called an In-One. An In-One is a scene that’s played in front of the main curtain, often with a song, while the huge set is being changed behind the curtain. When the In-One is over, presto! The curtain opens and the huge set is already ready! (Musical Theatre super-geek note: The In-One is named after the In-One-Act curtain, now referred to as the Olio Curtain, which is a colored draw curtain or painted drop a couple of feet upstage of the front curtain)

Let me give you a well known example:

In The Music Man, (which, like it or not is pretty perfectly constructed) both The Sadder But Wiser Girl AND the Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little/Goodnight Ladies in the first act are clearly supposed to be in front of the curtain.  Like this:

Or like This:

When that curtain comes up after this scene, you have the library scene already in place, and the show moves along without a hitch:

BUT if you played the Pick-A-Little/Good Night Ladies scene in the school gym set, you didn’t set up the library until the end of the number, and the audience has to hear that dum da dadada dum da dadada vamp about 30 times while kids in black tights drag out a bunch of benches before the lights come up and anyone says anything. Marian The Librarian is an awesome number, but if that’s how it begins people will want it to be over before anyone has even started singing.

You too can take advantage of the In-One, if you look carefully at the script and plan accordingly. Unfortunately, many amateur productions choreograph the In-One on the regular set. Then the pit is forced to saw away for 5 minutes on the last 16 bars of the song from the In-One, while the stage crew moves the set that should have been moved during the last song. This is an example of using the second principle to your advantage: normally shows are constructed so that hard scene changes have scene change music to match. The author intended that you use that scene change music to those ends.

If you should need more scene change music than you have, you can usually choose 8-16 bars of the end of the previous number, build in a repeat and go. There’s no point in going back 3 pages if you’re just going to flip forward again 15 seconds later. So if the scene change is short, make the repeated section short. On the other hand, hearing a short 4 bars over and over again in the dark while people stumble over a big set piece is excruciating. If the scene change is long, make the repeated section long. If the scene change is quite long, let your better players improvise over the changes. I have actually had scene changes pull applause after a great solo.

The decision to honor the Author’s intent with the in-ones can only be made at the beginning of the staging of these numbers, but the rest of the scene change music decisions are made very late in the process, sometimes even on the fly in the pit during the show itself. Put yourself in the audiences shoes and make the scene changes as painless and entertaining as possible.



  1. Any comment for when scene change music is disregarded by the conductor, taken up or down half steps or made faster at leasure to steal spotlight from the show and bring it to the pit orchestra?

  2. My favorite in-front-of-the-curtain number is “You’re Timeless To Me”, from Hairspray.

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